Nigel Hughes with his latest book, a photographic journey through Durban between the two World Wars, packed with information. Picture: Duncan Guy
Nigel Hughes with his latest book, a photographic journey through Durban between the two World Wars, packed with information. Picture: Duncan Guy

Durban between the wars

By Duncan Guy Time of article published Jun 26, 2021

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Durban - Older people today would remember many legacies of Durban between World War I and World War II.

“Much of that Durban was still around in the ’60s,” said Nigel Hughes, the author of the newly released picture book Durban in the 1920s and 1930s.

UK-born but Durban raised, he has been an ardent collector of photographs, postcards, glass slides and ephemera as well as paintings of early Durban and Natal. He is particularly interested in shipping and a keen sailor.

Hughes said the period between the wars was not too far distant for many people to be able to relate to.

“When people pick up the book, they will see the Model Dairy at the Beachfront. Most people over 50 will remember it. Some buildings still exist, such as the Grosvenor Court.

“It was a small town, ruled by the Old Durban Families, and it had the remnants of having been a colony,” he said, referring to the 1920s and 1930s.

In his texts on the pages opposite the photographs, Hughes points out things that would have been relevant to the time and place. An image of an accident scene between a bus and a bicycle at the corner of West and Gillespie Streets, sometime around 1938, points out that the crowd is “racially widely varied… reminding us that Durban is indeed a city of south-east Africa”.

He notes that billboards held by newspaper sellers announce that Italy was selling arms to both sides in the Spanish Civil War, which “leads us to date the photograph towards the end of the war”.

Another street scene, from around 1935, is from a postcard published by the Canadian Pacific Line for use by passengers on an annual world cruise on the liner Empress of Britain. It shows manual labourers digging up a redundant tram line on Marine Parade and, in the background, the tram’s successor ‒ the trolleybus.

Those years between the two World Wars were a window period of peacetime during which German vessels could call in at Durban.

A photograph shows the Reichsmarine cruiser Karlsruhe berthed at Maydon Wharf in August 1930.

“At the time, the Karlsruhe was flying the ensign of the Reichsmarine, and only later would she fly the swastika of the Kreigsmarine,” writes Hughes.

“The Karlsruhe sank following torpedoing by HMS Truant in Norwegian waters in April 1940.”

Another shot is taken from the bridge of the vessel, looking at the German liner Wattusi.

“At the beginning of World War II the Watussi attempted to round the Cape from Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) by painting her funnels red and black in an effort to disguise herself as a Union Castle Liner,” writes Hughes.

“She was unsuccessful and was scuttled by her German crew off the west Cape Coast after being sighted by an aircraft of the Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron of the SA Air Force.”

An Italian vessel, the Giulo Cesare, that features in the book on a visit to Durban, was also destroyed in World War II when the Royal Air Force sunk it in the Italian port of Trieste.

Aviation also comes into Hughes’s book with images of flying boats. One is of an Imperial Airways flight taking off in the bay and another of such an aircraft in the sky above the city.

Then there’s the observation he makes that an aerial view of the city centre shows that some companies had their names painted on their roofs in the early 1930s in spite of aviation being in its infancy.

One of the companies is biscuit maker Bakers Ltd, originally established in Durban as Baumann and Co in 1851 by the German immigrant Johann Freidriech Baumann.

“In 1915 the firm changed its name to Bakers Ltd after anti-German riots led to the burning down of the bakery and the office,” Hughes writes.

There are plenty of other bits of interesting information in the text.

Did you know that there was once a polo ground in Greyville; that KwaMashu is named after sugarcane farmer Marshall Campbell (place of Marshall) who introduced rickshaws to Durban; that Clairwood was originally called Clairmont but that its name was changed, so as not to be confused with the Cape Town suburb and that the beachfront Amphitheatre was built between 1933 and 1934 by relief workers who were unemployed during the great depression of the 1930s?

Two similar books Hughes has produced are The Paintings of The Bay of Natal: A Selection of Works Dating From 1845 to 1982, published in 2001, and Views in Colonial Natal: A Select Catalogue Raisonne of Southern African Paintings of Cathcart William Methven (1849 -1925).

  • Durban in the 1920s and 1930s

The Independent on Saturday

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